Last week, Donald Trump sent Mike Pence to relay a message to NASA demanding that the agency speed up its timeline for landing crewed missions on the lunar surface for the first time in decades. Pence’s address to the National Space Council was clear and to-the-point, but it was also completely unrealistic and probably won’t actually change anything.
Nevertheless, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine — who was appointed by Trump shortly after he took office — is going to try to make it happen. The odds are firmly stacked against NASA cutting four or more years off of its original Moon landing forecast, but with Trump issuing thinly-veiled threats to “change the agency, not the mission” if NASA can’t make it happen, Bridenstine has little choice but to toe the line. However, if he has any hope of success, he’s going to need heaps of cash that NASA just doesn’t have.
As The Washington Post reports, Bridenstine made it clear that money was a major issue while addressing NASA staff at a town hall meeting this week. Put simply, NASA’s budget has been repeatedly gutted by presidential administrations for decades, and now has a small fraction of the funding it did when the U.S. first sent men to the Moon.
Now, the current administration is asking NASA to do 10 years’ worth of work in just five years, and without additional funding.
It doesn’t help that NASA contracts like the colossal cash hog that is the Space Launch System (SLS) have failed to yield usable hardware on time, sucking even more money from an already strained budget. The decision of this administration to tell NASA to work faster without approving additional funding to speed up the mission timeline is both shortsighted and potentially dangerous, and that’s a bad combination when you’re talking about sending human lives into space.
Most space industry experts have called Pence’s speech laughable, and it’s increasingly clear that there’s really no way for NASA to make a Moon landing happen within the next five years without essentially gutting its other programs and missions in the process. NASA staff aren’t prepared to allow that to happen, so now we’ll see if Trump will grease the funding wheels in Congress and send a few more bucks NASA’s way. If he fails to do so, NASA’s new five-year timeline is dead in the water.